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Digital project offers access to the history of free people of color in Louisiana

Posted in Digital Collections, Special Collections Tagged with: , , ,

The award-winning 2013 movie 12 Years a Slave about Solomon Northrup, a free man of color from New York who was sold into slavery in Louisiana, brought unprecedented attention to the history of free people of color in the United States. It is somewhat ironic that Northrup ended up in Louisiana, for it had one of the largest and most significant populations of free people of color. Those interested in exploring the history of this group can now do so in a recently-released, free online resource available at http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/fpoc/.

“Free People of Color in Louisiana: Revealing an Unknown Past,” is a collaborative digital project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that brings together and provides access to over 30,000 pages of family and personal papers, business records, and public documents from the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections, the Louisiana State Museum Historical Center, the Historic New Orleans Collection, Tulane University’s Louisiana Research Collection, and New Orleans Public Library. LSU Libraries received the $194,152 two-year grant in 2013; it will conclude at the end of April 2015.

Jacques, Free Man of Color passport, 95-28-L, Williams Research Center, The Historic New Orleans Collection.  Free people of color had to carry such documentation as evidence of their free status.

Jacques, Free Man of Color passport, 95-28-L, Williams Research Center, The Historic New Orleans Collection. Free people of color had to carry such documentation as evidence of their free status.

“Relatively few collections of papers from free families of color survive in archives in Louisiana, nor are they numerous in archives elsewhere in the United States,” said Curator of Manuscripts and Project Co-Director Tara Laver. “The most extensive collections of family papers for free people of color held by Louisiana repositories are, in fact, split across institutions. Digitizing these records has allowed us to reunite them virtually, making these materials accessible in one place for the use of historians, descendants of free people of color, genealogists, students, teachers, and anyone who is interested in this important aspect of our nation’s history.”

Free people of color were individuals of African descent who lived in colonial and antebellum America and were born free or had escaped the bonds of enslavement before slavery was abolished in 1865. By 1810, free people of color composed 29 percent of New Orleans’s population, a demographic unmatched by any other U.S. city or territory. Baton Rouge, St. Landry Parish, and the Cane River area near Natchitoches, Louisiana also had significant numbers of free people of color. Inhabiting the space between slavery and freedom made their ambiguous and incongruent status one of the most talked about “problems” of the first half of the nineteenth century, yet their history has understandably been largely overshadowed by the harsh story of slavery in America.

Bellazaire Meullion amnesty oath, Meullion Family Papers, Mss. 243, 294, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.  Bellazaire Meullion was a free woman of color and plantation owner of St. Landry Parish.  She signed this loyalty oath to the U.S. soon after the end of the Civil War.

Bellazaire Meullion amnesty oath, Meullion Family Papers, Mss. 243, 294, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La. Bellazaire Meullion was a free woman of color and plantation owner of St. Landry Parish. She signed this loyalty oath to the U.S. soon after the end of the Civil War.

But indeed there are many fascinating stories to be discovered among the documents found in the digital collection. Bellazaire Meullion, daughter of a formerly enslaved son of a French officer and a slave woman, operated a plantation on Bayou Teche and filed claims against the U.S. government for property seized during the Civil War. Her brother Donat and other male family members became active in Republican state politics almost immediately after blacks gained the vote.  Successful businessman, barber, diarist, and plantation owner William Johnson of Natchez, Mississippi, was murdered over a property dispute; his wife Ann eventually assumed management of the family’s business interests, and their daughters became teachers in the African American community in Natchez. White New Orleans planter John McDonogh emancipated many of his slaves, who were able to purchase their freedom, and arranged for their settlement in Liberia, from where they wrote him about their lives and experiences in the colony. As architects, builders, and entrepreneurs, the Soulié family contributed to the rich architectural history of New Orleans and helped build and sustain the community of free people of color in the city. These individuals’ histories are largely told through family or personal papers. Public records such as emancipation petitions provide insight into individual free people of color’s experiences before they were free and the circumstances around their emancipation. Indenture agreements help understand the participation of free people of color in skilled trades such as masonry and carpentry and the associated and supporting network of sponsors and craft masters, many also free people of color.

Group portrait of (left to right) Dr. Henry Lewis Bailey, one of the first African American graduates of Harvard and a founder of the Niagara Movement, an unidentified man, Amanda Bailey, and William R. Johnson, who was a descendant of free people of color William and Ann Johnson of Natchez, Miss..  Johnston lodged with the Baileys during his studies at Howard University.   William T. Johnson and Family Memorial Papers, Mss. 529m, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge.

Group portrait of (left to right) Dr. Henry Lewis Bailey, one of the first African American graduates of Harvard and a founder of the Niagara Movement, an unidentified man, Amanda Bailey, and William R. Johnson, who was a descendant of free people of color William and Ann Johnson of Natchez, Miss.. Johnston lodged with the Baileys during his studies at Howard University. William T. Johnson and Family Memorial Papers, Mss. 529m, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge.

“These are just a few examples of the possibilities to research and explore,” said Project Librarian Jessica Mlotkowski. “Uniting these papers digitally shows how diverse the lives of free people of color truly were—across families, places, and time periods.   Most exciting of all, the collection provides access to their own words in an unprecedented way.”

For additional information about the project contact Laver at tzachar@lsu.edu.

 

Jessica Lacher-Feldman is the Head of Special Collections at Louisiana State University.

Posted in Digital Collections, Special Collections Tagged with: , , ,
6 comments on “Digital project offers access to the history of free people of color in Louisiana
  1. Beverly Babin Woods says:

    I have thirty years of research on the history of a free man of color in Lafayette, LA. Please contact me for details as I am extremely protective of my work. It would be a delight to hear from someone regarding interest in people of color who wanted to make a difference.

  2. Gwenn says:

    I’m so excited about this project! I can trace my FPOC family in Louisiana back to 1830. My great great granduncle was reconstruction state senator George Young Kelso. While I have a great picture of his mother and sister (my 2x great grandmother), I have been searching for a picture of him for years! I would also like to discover more information about the family, including my 3x great, who was born in Ky. I plan a research visit in June, where would you suggest I look. They lived in Rapides Parish, which was burned during the CW.

  3. Alice Deggs says:

    I’ve been doing research on my dad’s side Marc Richard, mom’s maiden name Lizzie Shepp, Mother’s family Theophile Breaux (dad) (mother’s maiden name Alice Tasin). Very interested in checking this out!!!

  4. Austin Metoyer says:

    I think this is great, I am currently working on my family The Metoyers from Cane River Natchitoches Parish, LA

    • Mialana says:

      Austin, us Bouttes and Metoyers have been kin by marriage and blood for 200 years… our families are 2 of the primary Gens du colour libre bloodlines that helped define the Cane River, and eventually New Orleans and the French Quarter. You should be very proud of what was accomplished by our ancestors.

    • Carmen Hayward-Stetson says:

      Hi, Austin. How is your research coming? My father’s people are Metoyers from Cane River. He was born in Shreveport and raised in Natchitoches. I have the book from LSU Press. Anything else you can share at this time? Do you know how to access the digital resource discussed in this article?
      Thank you!
      Carmen
      April 17, 2017

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